By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Petaluma community will have input in the selection process of the next police chief.
Lt. Danny Fish has been serving as interim chief for three years, saving the city about $600,000 in salary and benefits during that time, City Manager John Brown said.
When Fish was appointed in April 2009 to replace Steve Hood, who retired to work with a military counter-terrorism unit, he was expected to fill in for about a year before a permanent replacement was hired.
In the meantime, the city’s budget tanked along with the overall economy and the annual savings remained attractive as the city slogged through the recession.
“But it’s certainly high time to get the question answered,” Brown said.
Fish led the department through the tightest budgets in memory, cutting supplies, keeping positions vacant, reassigning specialty units and making do with aging equipment.
In an effort to save about $35,000 from last year’s budget, Fish recommended the elimination of the captain’s position held by Dave Sears, Fish’s second-in-command and his only competition in 2009 for the temporary chief’s position. The City Council approved the request and Sears dropped back to a lieutenant’s slot, with a lower salary.
The move sparked a groundswell of support for Sears and resurrected gossip about Fish’s personal life.
Questions about Fish’s personal life have surfaced intermittently over the years, mostly as anonymous online postings. They center on a 2009 affair Fish acknowledges he had with a police department employee while married to his ex-wife. He later married the woman, who no longer works in the police department.
Although the hiring of the chief is solely the city manager’s decision, Brown said a more extensive and open selection process was warranted this time for the position, which pays between $150,000 and $180,000 annually.
“We’re hoping an open and objective process is the best way to resolve the questions the best we can,” Brown said.
Both Fish and Sears said they will apply for the chief’s job — and both maintain they have an advantage over the other. Brown said he hopes by July to have a new chief to lead a department of 62 sworn officers and about 30 support staffers.
A national recruiting firm will be hired to conduct the first screenings, Brown said, and possibly the first interviews. The top candidates will go through interviews with Brown, community peers and a “limited public review.”
The exact nature of the public review hasn’t been determined, nor has the basic qualifying criteria. The search will include in-house and external candidates.
“We owe it to all sides to get the best chief available,” Brown said.
He acknowledged that Fish’s long tenure as interim chief may give the perception that he has an advantage.
“But I don’t think he does,” he said. “I would hope that this process would take that out of the mix.”
Fish, who has sole custody of his teenage daughter but is still involved in legal disputes with his ex-wife, declined to discuss the issue in detail, saying his personal life is irrelevant.
Others have privately complained that the issue is one of ethics.
Brown said he was contacted in 2009 by someone complaining about Fish’s relationship with a department employee. He then interviewed Fish and others involved.
Fish said he informed Brown of the relationship in accordance with city policy.
Brown said he couldn’t speak specifically about the allegations because it was a personnel matter, but said he found no proof that Fish was dishonest about the relationship.
Fish will be vetted as will any candidate, Brown said.
Fish, 45, welcomed a public review, saying his 23 years with the department and especially the past three years will show he’s the best choice.
“An independent body will give validity to the process. And it should in the end, especially if I’m selected, put all that to rest,” he said. “It’d be silly to say I don’t have an advantage. I hope my performance for the last three years will speak for itself.”
Sears, 46, also endorsed the broader recruitment process: “It’s good to give a lot of diverse groups access to the process; it adds a bit of ownership. I’m always interested in a fair and impartial process.”
Sears came to Petaluma as a lieutenant in 1999 and served as captain for seven years before that job was eliminated last year and he returned to his previous rank.
“It will be an opportunity for the community to give their input on what they want, since we actually work for them,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity for me to demonstrate my education, my professional experience and my community involvement, which I think gives me a leg up.”
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or email@example.com.